2 July 2010
BLOODY SUNDAY – 38 years waiting for truth and justice
BY LAURA FRIEL
ANOTHER milestone in the struggle to establish the truth about Bloody Sunday has been met with the publication of the Saville Report. This is the second report commissioned by the British Government into the killing of civilians in Derry’s Bogside on January 30th 1972 by British paratroopers.
The first report was published less than three months after the shootings. The second inquiry was announced amidst negotiations that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement. Twelve years and £200million later, Saville achieved the dubious accolade of becoming the longest-running, most expensive inquiry in British legal history.
In 1972, the day had begun with a political rally and ended with British troops committing the single largest massacre of citizens within the state’s own jurisdiction in over 150 years.
In Ireland, people drew comparison with a more recent atrocity, also carried out by British soldiers on Irish soil: the Croke Park massacre of 1920, another Bloody Sunday.
Over 30,000 people had attended what was a peaceful protest against detention without trial. Shortly before 2.30pm, the British Army entered the Bogside, opened fire and continued firing for around 20 to 30 minutes, by which time 27 people had been shot, thousands of protesters terrorised and an entire nation traumatised.
Thirteen civil rights protesters died at the scene and a fourteenth of his injuries some months later.
Five of those wounded were shot in the back. All those killed were men and boys. Of the two women who were seriously injured, one was shot (the other was run over by an armoured car).
Seven of those shot dead were teenagers, many looked like children.
The official cover-up began as soon as the shooting ended.
In the immediate aftermath, the British Army told lies and fabricated ‘evidence’ in an attempt to hide the fact that soldiers had opened fire, killed and wounded unarmed civilians exercising their democratic right to peaceful protest.
The most notorious attempt was by British soldiers manning a checkpoint who planted nail bombs in the pockets of one of those killed. Photographs were circulated as ‘evidence’ that those killed had been ‘targeted’ because they had been actively engaging in republican violence. It was not true.
It was claimed some of those shot dead were known ‘agitators’ and ‘wanted’ by the British Army. That wasn’t true. It was suggested British soldiers had engaged in an armed exchange with the IRA and civilian casualties were caught in the crossfire. That wasn’t true either.
But if the official cover-up began almost immediately, so too did the struggle to challenge it. Resistance took two forms: ongoing campaigns to expose British rule and an armed insurrection against military occupation.
Bloody Sunday had exposed the colonial nature of Britain’s military intervention in the North and if the British state regarded unarmed civilians demanding democratic rights as military targets then, as one observer put it at the time, “We’re all in the IRA now.”
In the immediate aftermath, 30,000 people in Dublin laid siege and burned down the British Embassy. Tens of thousands of people across Ireland, together with Irish communities throughout the world, took to the streets to protest against the actions of the British Army and demand answers from the British Government.
Forced to respond to popular and international concern, the British Government announced an inquiry.
Lord Chief Justice Widgery was tasked with “restoring public confidence” and British Prime Minister Edward Heath was very clear about just whose confidence he expected to be restored.
On the eve of the tribunal, the judge was ‘advised’ by his prime minister that “it has to be remembered that we are fighting not just a military war but also a propaganda war”.
The Widgery Tribunal was never about the victims and their families; it was never about the people of Derry; it was never about justice for the Irish people. It was about maintaining the confidence of the British public in their own government and ensuring their continued support for the deployment of British troops in Ireland.
The campaign to expose Widgery began immediately. It received an unexpected support from a coroner conducting inquests into 13 of the deaths. An inquest cannot compel witnesses nor comment on any criminal or civic liability and is restricted to declaring an open verdict where murder or manslaughter is suspected.
In August 1972, the jury returned 13 open verdicts. The following day, the coroner accused the British Army of running amok, “firing live rounds indiscriminately” and “shooting innocent people”.
“I would say without hesitation that it was sheer unadulterated murder. It was murder,” he said.
And what was the British Government’s response to this open accusation by a public official? Widgery had ‘exonerated’ the actions of the British soldiers on the ground and asked no questions about their military and political masters.
As far as the British state was concerned, it was over. But for the people of Derry, particularly the families of the victims, and the wider Irish community, it was not over. The struggle for truth and justice continued.
The British state had killed citizens engaging in legitimate democratic protest. In doing so, they were in obvious breach of international law. To bring a case before the international judiciary, a petitioner must demonstrate all domestic avenues of redress have been exhausted.
Unfortunately, this prerequisite encourages stalling and prevarication on a grand scale by nation states cited by citizens seeking justice. If a state appears to have dealt with the matter, then a double-lock has to be unpicked. It requires new evidence and a refusal by the government in question to re-examine the case in light of this.
In January 1994, relatives of those shot dead wrote to the British Prime Minister outlining major flaws in the Widgery inquiry and report.
Meanwhile, the British Irish Rights Watch organisation submitted a report to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Summary and Arbitrary Executions.
In August, an application was submitted to the European Commission of Human Rights on the grounds that those killed had been intentionally and wrongfully deprived of their right to life.
In 1996, while trawling through the Public Records Office, a confidential memo was discovered of a meeting which took place the day after Bloody Sunday between Lord Chief Justice Widgery and the British Lord Chancellor. The memo, important in its own right, also suggested there was further material held by the British Home Office that had never been made available.
The British Government was forced to admit there were 13 categories of documents relating to Bloody Sunday that had been closed to public scrutiny. Twelve of those were subsequently released but the last, relating to medical reports on those who died, was withheld.
In early 1997, the families were able to approach the Irish Government with substantial evidence to expose Widgery as a whitewash. The Irish Government presented the evidence to the British in June 1997.
Then British Prime Minister Tony Blair was faced with the dilemma of either refusing a new inquiry at the risk of triggering an international probe or reversing the position of successive British governments by ordering a new inquiry. Blair announced a second inquiry and Saville opened in Derry on April 3rd 1998.
During the course of the inquiry, the Saville team received around 3,500 statements, considered 160 volumes of evidence, listened to 121 audio-tapes and watched 110 video-tapes. The finished report runs to ten volumes, 5,000 pages and comes in at a cost of £200million. Even before its publication, it had been heralded by Establishment figures as a colossal waste of public money.
But any waste has to be laid at the feet not of the families and campaigners who have fought so long and hard for truth and justice but the British state and its agencies who have always known the truth but repeatedly chosen to suppress it.
Truth costs nothing; it’s suppression of truth that’s costly, and not just in monetary terms. Its cost lies in 14 lives lost on the day and the thousands of lives subsequently lost in the decades of conflict that followed.
Its cost lies in the tens of thousands of people arrested, tortured, imprisoned and the brutality of the H-Blocks and Armagh Jail. It lies in the deaths of hunger strikers and those killed or injured through shoot-to-kill, collusion or the deployment of plastic bullets. It lies in the millions of small stories of lives disrupted and hopes denied.
Bloody Sunday was a crime against humanity, a declaration of war against a civilian population seeking justice and, in that very real sense, a war crime. When the British admit as much, we will have all moved on.